Lilies from America: New and Selected Poems 2004-2019
By Carmen Bugan
(Shearsman Books, 115 pp., $18)
Aunt Saftica, who lived in Romania, has died, and thanks to her niece in America, who places an order there for white lilies, like those grown by the aunt, a devoted gardener,
Over three nights of wake,
On your final walk through the village,
And at the last church service,
When you will leave your place
In the choir, and your living candle
Will be blown out, moved to the candelabra
At the altar, where the candles for the dead
Weep in sand, you shall have
Madonna lilies next to you.
The niece is Carmen Bugan, and Lilies from America is a selection of poems from her three books of verse: Crossing the Carpathians (2004), The House of Straw (2014), and Releasing the Porcelain Birds (2016), along with a dozen “New Poems,” a baker’s dozen when you add in the title poem, which, by appearing alone at the beginning of the book, serves as a lens through which to view the selection as a whole.
Thirty years earlier, in 1989–thirty years before the death of this aunt that occasions the poem “Lilies from America”–a nineteen-year-old Carmen Bugan, together with her parents and younger sister and brother, was able to leave Romania and find political asylum in the United States, only a month or so before the overthrow of the totalitarian regime and the execution of “The tyrant and his wife,” Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu, on Christmas Day.
Bugan’s parents had agitated against the regime by typing at night, when the children were in bed, and distributing in rural mailboxes before dawn leaflets demanding “Hot water, electricity, freedom of speech, freedom to worship, freedom to assemble”—typing at a “large oak table” in a room whose windows had been covered by towels and a yellow blanket, on a typewriter “dug . . . From its hole . . . in the ground at the back of the house.” I quote from the vivid poem “In the Silent Country” that opens a generous selection of poems from Crossing the Carpathians.
Bugan’s 2012 memoir, Burying the Typewriter: Childhood Under the Eye of the Secret Police, which attracted much interest abroad—in the United Kingdom, where she earned her doctorate at Oxford, more than in the United States—provides a narrative account of this clandestine subterfuge, the father’s public defiance in Bucharest of the Ceausescu “dynasty” and his conviction “for propaganda against the socialist regime” and imprisonment in 1983, and the subsequent surveillance and persecution of the family. The father’s release comes in 1987, and two years later the family finds itself in Michigan, where Bugan awakes “without a country,” as she reflects twenty years later in the poem, “Twenty Years,” that opens the selection from The House of Straw.
Viewed as a whole, this New and Selected Poems has itself the trajectory of an autobiographical narrative. It begins (following the prologue-like title poem) with Bugan’s adolescence in totalitarian Romania—her parents’ anti-communist activism, the state’s reprisals (which include, in addition to jailing her father, tailing her sister, digging up the garden in search of weapons, forcing the parents to divorce)—the emotional and physical ordeal of “taking leave,” resettlement in Michigan, a return visit to Romania. Then there is for Bugan herself a sojourn in England. A decade later (perhaps as a consequence of her reliving her youth in prose) nostalgic memories revive of folkways in rural Romania. Bugan gives birth first to a son and then to a daughter. When the Securitate’s secret files become available, she immerses herself in a “record” that “remembers what I no longer keep / in a self that I half-made with forgetting.” She establishes residence—“founds” a new if temporary home—in France. Again in the United States, she ponders the nightmarish contrast between her “resurrection” there in her youth and the shameful fate of other refugees. She communes with her elderly parents. She casts a pessimistic eye on the perilous voyage of “democratic” ships of state.
The theme of this autobiographical narrative is at once self-invention and self-discovery. The locus of Bugan’s essential self, however, appears to be the soil of her native land and its manifestation in folkways, which articulate the changes of season—in nature and, metaphorically, in human life—and which, though traditional, permit expressions of spontaneity. (Especially vivid are the poems that depict a harvest or end-of-life ritual or funeral.) There is also her native speech, an individually expressive manner of speech that you stifle when the walls have ears—as Bugan learns to do after the secret police has bugged the house. “My father,” returning home with questions after four years in prison, “said to me, ‘You answer / As if you are speaking on the radio,’” as she might as well be doing.
There is, then, a bipolarity of sorts about this Romanian self: on the one hand “gardens,” on the other “museums.” “We are small gardens in strange places, small voices,” Bugan asserts in a poem (“For My Father”) in which her father surprises her “with dill seeds from Grandmother / That you kept since our last trip home.” As though the grandmother were somehow present in those seeds, “You brought her in this soil and now we are together,” Bugan affirms. In contrast to those gardens there are the museums (in “We Are Museums”) that “We have now become,” preserved as are the words and movements and the domestic and even private lives of Bugan and her family in the state archives.
Before leaving Romania, Bugan sought refuge from totalitarianism’s corruption of her mother tongue by reading “older Romanian poets . . . not the social realist stuff. . . . What you want to do,” she explains in an interview,
is suffocate yourself with nostalgia—nostalgia for romantic images, for beautiful, unspoiled poetry. You’re longing for a kind of innocence that probably never existed. It’s a primal kind of thing, a search for comfort. That’s why I went back to the older Romanian poets who, for me, were innocent. They belong to something that was not part of the conversation of totalitarianism.
Perhaps this nostalgia explains her tolerance for old-fashioned figures of speech and timeworn phrases, which lessen the freshness especially of her rural scenes: rainbows that “paint the mountain air / With . . . joy”; “shadows of mountains” that “caress” heads; a heart that is “full of hope”; a smile that is “wider than the sunflowers outside the door”; “The pure happiness of being old, at peace / With all that life has offered.”
Interestingly, I find the last two quotations in one of the new poems, “Love,” which appeared in Literary Matters and excited my interest in this book. It takes place at the poet’s elderly parents’ home in the United States. For me, the poem retains its freshness thanks to the sensuous particularity of the images: the mother’s “morning harvest” of tomatoes and maybe other fruits, which the poem lists by name (“Cucumbers [that] hang below yellow flowers, / Purple chilis [that] shine from a flat bush / Under green bell peppers”); the flower garden with its calla lilies, “Queens of the night and honeysuckle bushes, / Purple pansies and pink mouth-of-the-lion blooms”; the whisky shared at “half past ten” by father and daughter, with mother holding a glass to toast; the grill in the garage, which mother and daughter light. Then too there is the openheartedness of the persona, this “daughter home,” who is communing with her parents, her father around whose aorta a “tumor coils” and her mother who has “five fractured ribs,” in a garage, three of whose walls are “altars,” decorated as they are with “pictures of us children” and religious artifacts.
In that same interview Bugan says how “pivotal,” specifically as regards her prose memoir, was the example of Czeslaw Milosz “in helping me to articulate the psychological experience of exile.” Be that as it may, her poems at their best render local color with a vividness that brings Milosz to mind. Here she is, after twenty years in exile, “Visiting the Country of My Birth”:
Farther, into wilderness, we slow down where horse
And foal walk home to the clay hut by themselves,
Cows cross roads in evenings alone, bells clinking.
In this poem we also find those head-caressing shadows of mountains. But there comes a charming moment too of clear-headedness when the poet finds herself “searching for prints of mare’s hooves in our yard”—in the village, that is, where she spent her girlhood—“Between stable and kitchen window, now gone / With the time my two feet used to fit inside one hoof.” She and her cousin, who apparently lives in the village, “sit down to eat on the porch.” When “two sparrows”
Come flying in circles over the table, low and fast, happily!
“My grandparents’ souls,” I think aloud, but my cousin says:
“No, the sparrows have nested under eaves, look
Past the grapevine.” Nests big as cupped hands, twigs
And straw. Bird song skids in the air above us.
The cousin’s “No”—is it not, because Bugan herself reports it, a self-critique of her “nostalgia for romantic images,” her “longing for a kind of innocence”? (Neat verb, “skids.”)
Understandably, Bugan’s expatriation to the United States, where her host speaks “an alien language,” involves her in the creation of a new, American self. This process involves both learning new words and, if possible, forgetting old ones—erasing, as it were, the familiar locale of her girlhood and inscribing in its place the features of the foreign. As she explains in “Twenty Years,”
. . . I erased the birds: woodpecker,
Sparrow, grandfather’s pigeons, and the faithful stork.
In their place I wrote the hawks that scanned
The dunes of Sleeping Bear, crows, hummingbirds,
Red cardinals singing
In the too-large garden of our new house.
Now, twenty years later, Bugan observes, “cherry orchards grow to the tip of Leelanau,” on Lake Michigan: “They swish over whitened-out / Cornfields of my childhood.” Whitened-out though the landscape of her childhood may appear, “All things I wanted to forget / Crowd in-between the lines.” We already know, however, from an earlier poem, “Evening” (in which Bugan affectionately memorializes her relationship to her grandfather), that among those things is that “faithful stork,” which “returns from the river / With a snake in its beak— // Wing-shadow and wing-flap and then / He stands on one foot in his tree,” beside which, in memory as in a painting, her grandfather stands, “tall at the stove / In the garden; fire, polenta // Settled in simmer, eggs, milk in froth” (“A dusty statue with the bluest eyes”), beside whom she stands.
Even as Romanian things resist erasure (and their names persist), Bugan becomes a poet and memoirist in English. Still, she is conscious of the non-native speaker’s “heavy accents hammering wrong syllables” and asks, with her family specifically in mind, “Does God understand us in English or our own language still?” But when, after a sojourn in England, she makes a new home for herself and her two young children in France—the Jura seen in one direction, Mont Blanc in the opposite—the poet discovers that she has “founded” a house on “elsewhere.” In other words, the price of her cosmopolitan home in languages other than her mother tongue (as well as in other places than her native soil) has been exile. As she writes of herself in the third person (in “The House Founded on Elsewhere,” an ambitious allegorical poem), “She built the new house with words bought / At the price of exile”; but about this new house she feels both
Anxious and proud that she made it all with a translated
Prayer, a new version of an old prayer, holy
Oil from elsewhere, rituals and superstitions
From elsewhere, but all renewed and changed
Again . . .
One embodiment of those “rituals and superstitions” would appear to be Aunt Saftica, whose death, thirty years after Bugan’s expatriation, occasions “Lilies from America,” the poem, if not also this New and Selected Poems, which takes its title, of course, from that poem. We encounter this aunt in a much earlier poem, “I Drink with You,” when Bugan makes a return visit to Romania. Here she learns, as she says in an apostrophe to her aunt,
For every year that I was gone you buried in the ground
One crimson bottle of wine. I never knew this–
How you felt when you gathered the sweetness of autumn,
And hoped that its magic would call me back.
I see Aunt Saftica as not only a guardian spirit of the poet’s native soil but also the presiding spirit of her palimpsestic narrative of self-invention, self-discovery. I read the annual ritual in “I Drink with You” as a reciprocal act of obeisance to the animating spirit of the vine in hopes that the coming year will produce, amid a bountiful crop, the niece who has roots in the same soil as the family vineyard. “Now,” as Bugan continues,
I touch the corners of your black scarf,
The white hair of your widow-braids. I kiss your hands,
Which rest on the wine-stained tablecloth.
By drinking with her aunt, the niece composes with the older woman a “small garden” (or vineyard) of themselves together, much as Bugan in the United States and her grandmother in Romania do thanks to those dill seeds. Fifteen or more years after this communion, Aunt Saftica is “with the angels,” as Bugan says in “Lilies from America,” nostalgically expressing the innocent religious sentiments of her native culture: “Oh, you are with the angels,” she repeats. Thus, of course, the white lilies, hothouse lilies—if not literally from America, from elsewhere than the aunt’s “front garden”—“for the time / When stars will blink above your grave,” itself a garden now in “bitter January.”